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A good year for apples

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Conditions have helped harvests at local orchards

By John Barnhart

    While some county agricultural operations got hammered by dry weather this summer, orchards have been an exception.

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    Actually, this is true statewide. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the apple harvest is good this year. A report by the department of agriculture stated apple trees experienced minimal damage from Hurricane Irene, although Tropical Storm Lee’s torrential rains delayed or interrupted the harvest for some of the earlier varieties because farmers couldn’t get into the fields. That added moisture should increase the size of varieties that are picked later, and the cooler temperatures at night will help the red-skinned apples achieve the bright red color that consumers prefer.
    According to the VDACS report, growers are finished picking Ginger Golds and Galas and are actively packing and selling these varieties now. Harvest of Red and Golden Delicious is just starting in Northern Virginia; in the southwest part of the state the harvest is well underway. Harvest of Rome apples should begin in early October; York apples in early to mid-October; Winesaps, Staymans and Granny Smith apples in mid-October; and then Fujis in late October or early November. Many pick-your-own farms also offer heirloom and heritage varieties of apples.
    Danny Johnson, of Johnson’s Orchards, said that rainfall was good at his place.
    “We have not been dry all year,” Johnson said.
    Johnson said that he has had to mow in the orchard every week, something that is unusual for him.
    The result is that he has a lot of apples and they are fairly good sized.
    The same is true at Gross’ Orchards.
    “We’ve had good rain,” said Walter Gross. “I don’t remember a year that has been that hot and that wet.” His memory goes back quite a way. Walter Gross is in his late 70s.
    Gross said that his apples are of fairly good size and, while it’s not a bumper crop, he’s happy with it.
    According to his son, Ronnie, their orchard is in the footprint of the Blue Ridge, which gives it a good micro climate. This, he notes, also explains why Johnson’s Orchard, also at the foot of the Blue Ridge, got good rainfall.
    The quality of the apples, along with their size, is also good.
    “We tested the sugar in the apples this year and it is extremely high,” Ronnie Gross said.    
    Vernie Kennedy, of Kennedy’s Orchard, is also having a harvest of good sized apples. Kennedy’s Orchard, located a little way up Wheats Valley Road from Gross’ orchard, shares the same microclimate.
    VDACS notes that agritourism is a major feature of Virginia orchards. Johnson’s and Gross’ offer the opportunity to pick your own apples. Johnson’s has farm tours and Gross’ has a slate of fall events planned.
    “The fall season here is going to be awesome,” commented Ronnie Gross.
    The local orchards also represent a bit of Bedford County living history. Gross’ Orchard has been at its current location since 1949, but the family’s homeplace was originally up on the Peaks of Otter. The farm was located where the campground and picnic area are today and Walter Gross said that he noticed recently that some of the apple trees that his grandfather planted are still there, and still bearing fruit.
    Johnson’s Orchard has been at its current location since 1919. Like the Gross family, the Johnson family farm was originally up on the Peaks. The National Park Service owns that farm today and operates it as an example of what a family farm was like in the 1930s.
    Portions of Vernie Kennedy’s orchard have been in his family since 1812.